Rashna Bajracharya was one of tens of thousands of international students in Australia who lost the part-time jobs they relied on to pay for food and rent when Covid struck in March.
“I reached out to family back in Nepal for help but the banking system there was closed due to the pandemic so they couldn’t send me money. I ended up relying on charity,” said the 29-year-old student, who is now a volunteer at a food bank run by Uniting Church in Sydney.
In contrast to governments in the UK, New Zealand and Canada, Canberra did not extend its Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme to foreign students — a decision that has caused a crisis for some of the 500,000 student visa holders who contribute A$9bn ($6.7bn) a year in fees to Australian universities.
Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said Canberra needed to focus on its own citizens and temporary migrants should go home if they could not support themselves. But many stayed because they could not afford the high cost of flights as well as international border closures.
But having suppressed Covid-19, Canberra now wants to entice foreign students back to support a sector that contributes A$37bn a year to the economy.
Last week it authorised a pilot project to allow 63 students from China, Indonesia and elsewhere to fly into Darwin to take up courses. Further flights are planned next year, which circumvent strict rules banning most foreign residents from entering Australia.
But critics warn that the harsh treatment of foreign students, travel bans, a requirement for two weeks’ hotel quarantine on arrival and diplomatic tensions with China mean Australia could struggle to retain its position as the world’s third biggest international education market.
The Mitchell Institute, a think-tank at Victoria University, forecasts the number of foreign students will halve to 290,000 by July, compared with pre-Covid-19 levels, if travel restrictions remain in place.
“International students haven’t been treated very well. We didn’t make them eligible for Jobkeeper [wage subsidies], unlike our competitors in higher education,” said Tom Smith from Macquarie University.
“There is a risk that international students are going to think, ‘well when it mattered most Australia didn’t support us’.”
About 70 per cent of temporary visa holders, which includes foreign students, lost their jobs or had their hours cut during the pandemic as employers prioritised retaining local staff who qualified for public subsidies, according to a joint survey of 6,100 people by the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative.
One in seven foreign students reported being homeless for a period during the pandemic and a third said they were unable to pay for essential needs, as their families could no longer send them money.
The predicament was apparent at the Uniting Church food bank, where boxes of essential supplies, each one enough to keep a student fed for about two weeks, are stacked up to the ceiling. The number of clients asking the centre for emergency food relief has surged eightfold to about 350 per month during the pandemic, most of them foreign students.
“I saw my friends, international students, basically lose their jobs, being homeless, starving because of having no food to eat and no place to stay,” said Anjali Bidari, one of about 40 volunteers working at the centre.
The 23-year-old student from Nepal warned that international students would think twice about studying in Australia because of what they experienced during the pandemic and the difficulty of finding part-time jobs.
She added that the proliferation of online teaching at universities could also make students question the value of international education.
But Australian universities are hopeful the efforts they and some state governments made to support foreign students during Covid-19 will be recognised.
The New South Wales government provided A$20m in housing support and Victoria allocated A$45m in emergency assistance. Monash University in Melbourne was one of dozens of universities that provided hardship funds and offered a food bank service.
“It was a very difficult time for them [international students] financially and also emotionally isolated and worrying about family back home,” said Margaret Gardner, vice-chancellor of Monash.
For Chinese students, who make up about a quarter of international students, the breakdown in bilateral diplomatic relations between Australia and China may be as important as Covid-19.
“Australia used to be known as a beautiful country of beaches in China, whereas now people see the news of tensions and wonder what they will face if they come to live here,” said Yuan Jiang, a PhD student from China at Queensland University of Technology.
The Migrant Worker Justice Initiative found that more than a third of Chinese respondents had suffered verbal abuse since the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan.
Dan Tehan, Australia’s minister for education, told Australian radio last week that demand remained strong among Chinese students for an Australian education and that Canberra’s suppression of Covid-19 could help it attract foreign students.
“We’ve been able to deal with the coronavirus pandemic in a way, which, I think, is the envy of most of the world . . . Now, obviously, the UK and Canada haven’t been able to enjoy the success that we’ve had.”